Analysis: Police fail to calm public as Tel Aviv killer remains at large

Until the suspect Nishat Milhem is found, the police and the Shin Bet will continue to be judged as failures.

Nashat Milhem‏ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nashat Milhem‏
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The shaming of the Israel Police was withering and public on Sunday night and it just kept coming.
A veteran crime reporter – one of the more recognizable faces on Israeli broadcast news – sent out a message to the WhatsApp group run by Israel Police Headquarters that was quickly read by dozens of journalists and top police commanders from across the country, slamming police for sending out a sterile, laconic press release at 9 p.m. on Sunday night, even as much of the Israeli public remained gripped with fear more than 48 hours after a suspected terrorist vanished without a trace after gunning down two Israelis on Dizengoff Street on Friday.
The press release quoted the police spokesman only, and called on the public to exercise caution, be alert and to notify the authorities if they see anything suspicious. Police said they would not reveal any details that could jeopardize the hunt for the killer ­and that every few hours they were holding a situation assessment with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to decide how to advance with the manhunt.
Finally, it said that, in the meantime, people should go about their daily routine.
As the reporter and other colleagues pointed out, the statement was quoting the anonymous spokesman and was the only police comment on the manhunt all day. There had been no briefings with reporters; no press conferences by senior police officials; no interviews by top commanders since the Friday attack.
Instead of a sterile press release bereft of information, the public would have been better served to see National Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich himself in front of the cameras giving a statement, assuring the people living in fear that his organization and the Shin Bet together had things under control and could be counted on.
Would he have to face questions from reporters? Certainly, but he wouldn’t have to answer them and, besides, there’s reason to believe that the former deputy head of the Shin Bet is tough enough to handle that.
The reticence of the Israel Police with the press preceded Alsheich, and was at times a feature of the agency under former commissioner Yohanan Danino. Still, there is concern that Alsheich may import more of the culture of the Shin Bet to his new position.
The Israel Police has tens of thousands of employees and is in contact with common civilians on a daily basis. In many neighborhoods across the country, the police are arguably the most visible manifestation of the state. They are not a small clandestine intelligence agency like the Shin Bet, and though secrecy and protecting informants and intelligence is of crucial importance, the police must conduct themselves differently with the public. They cannot remain in the shadows answering only to their higher ups.
There is a real danger in rapidly developing stories like this for false information to circulate, spreading panic and at times, making suspects out of people who had nothing to do with the crime. The false reports in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing are a good example of this.
Over-reporting of the manhunt, police methods and intelligence run the risk of jeopardizing the investigation and making the job of finding the killer that much harder.
All of this is true, but in the heat of a major story, when you have parents keeping their children home from daycare in neighborhoods across Tel Aviv, arguably, extra steps should be taken to reach out to the public.
The police will be judged in this crisis by the results.
With every hour that the suspect, Nishat Milhem, remains on the loose, the prestige of the organization – and that of the Shin Bet – will continue to take a hit. And until he is found, they will continue to be judged as failures.
Even after he is found (assuming he is) police and the Shin Bet will be criticized for the fact that he allegedly was able to carry out a shooting attack and vanish from central Tel Aviv unharmed with a loaded submachine gun and stay on the run for so long.
Perhaps most glaringly, police will bear the brunt of criticism, perhaps even a state inquiry on the incident, with a special focus on the decision to return the firearm to Milhem’s father a month ago after it had been confiscated by officers following a complaint.
When all that happens, the police – and the man who recently took the reins of the embattled organization – will have to address the public – whether they like it or not.